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On moving internationally

posted in personal stuff on January 11th, 2008

A few days ago, a friend of mine asked me if I ever regretted moving from Austria to the Netherlands and basically leaving everything behind – the short answer? No. You will want to read on if you are interested in the long answer.

First, let me preface this entry by explaining a few things: I moved to the Netherlands in the summer of 2002 – it was more or less a spontaneous decision after having been there only once (and enjoying it) a couple of months earlier.

Normally, with big decisions, I tend to consider all the advantages and disadvantages, I weigh my various options and try to look at the big picture and disregard all small details that are not important for the overall decision.

Not this time though, when my parents first approached me in the fall of 2001 about moving internationally, I was reluctant, I knew little about the country or its customs, I did not speak one word of the language and, childish as it may seem, the one thing I could think of first – broadband Internet was not going to be available for at least a year at the very address I would be living at.

All in all, quite a hand full of reasons to tip the decision in favor of simply staying in Austria, but as always, there were also a few reason that would be able to, at least, balance the whole thing out:

First of all, Austria still has a conscript army where you are supposed to spend (waste?) ten to twelve months at, while getting paid little and seeing all your (female) friends move on to their sophomore year because they are not required to join the service.

Now, I will not say that I am a pacifist, but I do not see the point of me shooting vintage rifles, throwing hand grenades and crawling through mud all day long. Yes, it’s free physical education, paid for by the man and certainly a great way to condition yourself both physically and mentally, but at which cost? Being harassed days on end because you did not complete an obstacle course in the required time? No, thank you. I will just go to a gym and pay for it myself.

That and of course the fact that many drill instructors have enjoyed a lower education than me and still behave like they fought in both Wars and helped tip them in “our” favor. I do not have a problem with authority, I realize that there is a definite need for leaders and followers, but some things simply do not work for me.

I am not much of a patriot, I realize that, but then again I never claimed that I was one. I see citizenship as a, I guess the right word would be, attribute, that can benefit someone (or not) and I would like to think that by paying taxes and behaving like every good citizen should, that I have done a lot for my country.

There are others that are more willing to join a service and sacrifice themselves for their country, but I am not one of them. I do, however, have an insane amount of respect for every soldier that actually fought in a war and had to take another person’s life to protect the very country I am in.

Apart from the army issue, there was also the longing for change. I always wanted to spend a year abroad, just pick up a new language on the go and experience another country by immersing myself into their culture and therefore making it, at least partially, my own.

The Netherlands provided me with all that – a good education, a new country and a new language and best of all: no army I would be required to join after high school.

Obvious advantages aside, the Netherlands also were host to a number of other things that would be important for me later on, after high school – such as a good higher education that focused on new media. Yes, there are colleges and universities like that in Austria, but they do not have the same national status as the college I am studying in right now and prestige, somehow, still matters to me.

Back to the future, it has been five and a half years since I have moved here. As always, there have been the good times, the bad times and then there have been the great times: in the past two years I have personally met some of the people I admire, such as Kevin Kelly and Dick Hardt, I have talked to people that made millions on the web and lost them in the blink of a second. I have talked to some of the most influential people of the Dutch media scene and I had (and have) the pleasure of working with some of them.

I have given speeches in front of huge audiences on topics I care about and even though both cases were rather ad-hoc, I like to think that I did perform quite well.

The Netherlands, for me, were and are a catalyst of sorts: after moving here I acquired new clients, nay friends that taught me a great deal about going about business. I have met generous people that helped me by sharing experiences and interesting information with me and I have worked with people that showed me the works and I am thankful for that, because I believe that I would not be who I am today were it not for their intervention.

Business things aside, there is one issue that keeps coming up, an item that many people cannot and will not disregard as lightly as I did: friends.

When moving internationally, you are basically sacrificing friendships; sure – there are trains and planes and cars and you could visit them (or they could visit you) every now and again, but one way or another, the friendship is going to change.

Well, let me say this: real friendship transcends borders. There are a few people in Austria I still have contact with and those are people I consider true friends. Not only because we shared many things in common back “then”, but also because we still have regular contact and try to keep the other in the loop, which is good enough for me.
I have not been to Austria in more than five years now and every time people ask me when I will be going back, I have to give them the same answer: I do not know if that will happen any time soon, maybe not ever at all.

In closing, let me state that if someone were to ask me what the best decision was that I made in the last decade, I can say, with absolute certainty, it would be moving to the Netherlands and I do not regret it at all.

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We don’t need no Education

posted in Media on August 31st, 2007

I am a student. I have been as long as I can remember and I will be as long as I can keep remembering (stuff). I am also the son of a teacher, tutor and language specialist.

You see, I was born and raised in a multi-cultural, sometimes-traditionally European family. My parents hail not only from different countries, but from different continents and as such, I had the privilege of being able to immerse myself in a number of other cultures at a rather young age.

Through that very immersion, I was (and, indeed, still am) not only able to understand other cultural traits and traditions better, but I also gained a lot of insight into how my own culture is being thought of by outsiders.

This kind of understanding of course, is not only limited to cultural items but also expands into areas such as education and success and that is indeed what I am going to talk about today.

Before we start, I should probably give you some background information on my (educational) past, simply because I believe that this way, you will be able to see where I am coming from:

In the past decade, I attended five different high schools and one college. I have taken part in a number of non-secondary education related events such as language courses both in-country and on-location and have seen and, of course, experienced more different learning / teaching methods than most people can shake a stick at.

Note that I am not saying that my experience is beyond exhaustive, but I do believe that I have gotten a fair amount of information on this topic.

Now, after two years of college and various talks with students and teachers from around the world, I have come to the conclusion that us Europeans don’t need no education, or at least not like it is now anyway.

Education, without a doubt, is important, very important in fact and while I am not going to go as far as saying that people without proper education are less important members of a society, we all know that the better educated you are, the more options your future (and present) has for you.

I think we can all agree that educational systems were put in place to prepare you for life, to enable you to become a good, heck, great, member of society and contribute as good as you can to the greater good of the whole.

But, I ask you, what good is education that fails to do the one thing you really require: prepare you for life?

The most important part about, well, just about everything, is being able to present yourself, your product, your project, your team, … your anything and not just presenting it, but presenting it the right way.

I have been to a couple of (international) conferences in the past years and if there is one thing that I noticed it is that those speakers and hosts that know how to “work” the audience, generally are able to sell their product, be it a service or a thought or simply an idea, are always more successful than those that have no clue about giving a presentation.

Funnily enough, it seems that eight out of ten times, the bad speakers are of European descent and the great speakers are, most of the time, of American descent or at least have found a way to rid themselves of the European way of presenting and it makes me wonder, why is it like this?

I have talked to educators in the past and I am still talking to educators on a daily basis and many of them seem to be deadlocked in their ways, not realizing that not only they are keeping themselves from learning something new, but also are putting unnecessary obstacles on the road to success of us European students.

The problem is that our education system is, dare I say, hell-bent on training students to become hive-workers, there is little to no incentive to teach us, or at the very least, show us the ways of being a hive-queen.

In the Netherlands, for example, there are exactly two universities that teach classes around the subject of entrepreneurship. During high school, students, in general, give no more than five, maybe six presentations in front of a group of other students.

Translated into numbers, this means that only 8%, that is, less than one tenth, of all Dutch students are thinking about creating a start-up, the other 92% are, more or less, looking toward a job that provides safety until the age of 65 and a good pension.

Only a handful of students are willing to take a chance and there is a deep set angst of risking some (human, financial) capital and either succeeding or falling flat on the floor and that is the problem.

Europe, all in all, has very few failing economies, most countries are stable and provide good working environments. The man even stimulates many new companies with financial contributions and, if need be, even with the right knowledge that is needed to start a company.

Yet, whenever I have heard people asking for or giving advice business advice, it always comes down to “go for the stomach”, which means nothing else than to shoot for the market that everyone is going for, because there is little risk involved and a moderate chance of small-time success, “one would not want anything else…“.

Eight per cent, you really have to stop a minute and think about that number. Now take into account that approximately half of those eight per cent will not make it past the three year mark and we end up with less than one twentieth part of the student populace.

This prompts the question as to why are we not taught to go for the throat, take that long shot with a big chance of missing and a small (tiny?) chance of actually hitting it off big.

The answer: social environment. Family, significant others, friends, coworkers – all of them are conditioned, by our educational system, to tell you that following through on a brilliant idea simply is not done, well, not done in Europe anyway.

On the other side of the pond, your friends would most likely encourage you, tell you to go through with it, heck – the worst thing that could happen is that you burn a bit of money and have to go look for a new job or return to your old day job.

The problem is the mindset of the bigger part of Europeans: The views are simply black and white, you either win, or … you fail. There is no “you may have failed but you gained valuable insight” option. Annoying, to say the least and dangerous to the economies of Europe at best, dangerous because it robs Europe of many talented people, basically turning Europe into one big classified.

Fast Company, already presented one part of the bill to us Europeans this summer with their Fast Cities listing:

Out of a listing of thirty cities, only five are part of the European Union. The reason for this low number is simply that people with the right ideas would rather move overseas (that is, the United States) than to spend their time here, because, again, it comes down to the social environment issue.

And honestly, I can not blame but one of them. I, too, would rather move to a country where the whole “thing” is set up to enable me to create something amazing from scratch. A place where I do not have to shell out twelve large ones only to get a company started.

In closing, let me say this: If you are a student, do yourself and those that come after you, a favor and beg, no, FIGHT for changes that will enable you and your peers to compete with the American economy, but most of all: do not be afraid to shoot to kill…

Take a minute to think about what you want to be able to look back upon at the end of your life - “a sheltered and risk-free life” or a life full of accomplishments?

This article was first posted on NachoTalk in August 2007 and has been reposted here for posterity’s sake

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On education, the future and how to sell yourself

posted in Events on August 21st, 2007

Dutch cross media network iMMovator kicked off the new season of their CrossMediaCafe events yesterday with an interesting event.

The guest of honor was Ronald Plasterk, Minister of Education, Culture and Science. When asked as to what kind of technology he uses in his daily life, he made a remark about his recent vacation to Bali, stating that “he uploaded a couple of eps of 24 to his iPod so he could watch them during his trip“.

Naturally, the above statement should be taken with a grain of salt, after all, can one really trust politicians? Political views aside however, Plasterk struck me as authentic. He listened to what people had to say and provided insight into why he did certain things.

This was only the second time I met a Minister and the first time I actually liked the guy. Very non-condescending and approachable. No fancy security guys to shield the guy from the audience and a highly likable appearance.

His statement on Blackberry usage during cabinet meetings was great too: “my mother taught me that it is very inappropriate and plain jerk’ish to not look someone in the face when they are talking to you” (this is not verbatim, but Plasterk’s statement came down to that)

Later on, Paul Rutten from Hogeschool InHolland commented that Blackberrys actually increase the efficiency of people and as a user of these kind of technologies, I would have to agree, nonetheless, the point Plasterk makes about it being rude still applies.

One of the keynotes also contained some interesting information. It appears as if one third of the dutch IT / creative industry seems to be concentrated around the so-called Noordvleugel, namely Amsterdam and Hilversum with a respectable growth and many small, innovative companies. It might not be Silicon Valley yet, but it may put us on the next Fast Cities listing.

Then came the, for me, highlight of the whole conference - Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten speech on Entrepreneurship and ways of becoming an entrepreneur in today’s world and how he became the man he is today.

The speech was hands down the best thing about the whole conference / meeting because Boris dares to show that all you need is some big cojones and the strength to get up when someone tries to knock you down. For those that are interested, head on over to bomega.com and read the speech, it is definitely worth it.

According to Boris, the Dutch educational system is not built for success and only breeds “hive workers” that have little to no ambition to advance in their profession. This is being backed up by the fact that only 7% of Dutch students actually plan on setting up their own company, compare that to the 70% of American students and that’s ’nuff said. Just about everyone in the Netherlands who goes into higher education, does that for the sole purpose of finding a job where you can apply for, people lack the motivation to come up with something innovative.

In the end, Boris says, it all comes down to selling yourself (or your product, for that matter) the right (successful) way.

Pitching is something we do 24/7; at your company, when you try to convince your boss that you need more funding for that awesome idea you have, with your co-workers, when they do not feel like working late but you still need them and of course, with your significant other, when you need them to sign off on your next big purchase.

Boris thinks that the Netherlands (although, this would apply to any country really) would do a lot better, internationally speaking, if presentation skills would carry a higher importance in the educational system. With “only one oral presentation every year, as opposed to one oral presentation EVERY week in the US“, it is no wonder that our students are scared of pitching something.

The lack of serious presentation skills (or should that be: the serious lack of presentation skills?) was also obvious during some of the showcases speeches:

First up was Wobble, a product from Momentum Interaction. Wobble is a piece of wood you can step on and use as a kind of enhanced joypad. The system can be connected to a PC and gathers an array of data that can be used for medical purposes.

While the system in itself is nice enough, the suggested price of more than $4,000 made me laugh. For one, the system, in its current state is a long way from actually being production-ready and moreover, 18 months ago, I came across a similar system at my own college, which was built over the span of nine weeks as opposed to ten months (which was the time Momentum Interaction needed).

The “home” version of Wobble will have an approximate price of $150 to $250 and will be easier to set up. It does make one wonder how a device that costs $4,000 for medical usage, can end up at less than 1/10 of the price in a retail customer’s hands.

Any consumer will expect a range of games that can be used with the device and the looks and usage would have to be improved too, all factors that would drive the price up as opposed to down, yet Momentum Interaction thinks that the home product can be sold at that price.

I am no analyst, but seeing what “our guys” came up with really makes me think if the approach that was used for Wobble was the right one …

The second showcase was Stoneroos which was, no offense to the presentator, the worst presentation I have ever seen. Did someone forget to tell the lady that folding your hands is a no-go for presentations? Oh and “uhm” and “err” do not work that well either.

This may be out of line, seeing how Stoneroos is an accomplished company with a nice portfolio of clients, but wow, one would expect that as a CEO, you would have the time to prepare a well thought out and clear presentation and do a dry run at least once to get some feedback.

Stoneroos’ product itself, the iFanzy (whats with the “i” by the way?) is a solid product but I wonder why I would want to use that , limited, platform as opposed to something along the lines of Windows Media Center.

One of the guests commented that Stoneroos lacks focus; their product portfolio includes electronical program guides, games and other services and you can tell that Stoneroos is trying to be a Jack of all trades; at the cost of being a Master of none.

The third showcase was about Wunderwall, a product that enables you to utilize the wisdom of crowds for various tasks on your computer. While the name in itself is not really something I would go for (it might work great in a German speaking locale), the product in itself is an innovative and useful solution.

Wunderwall enables multiple users to take part in the presentation / application that is displayed on a screen, allowing everyone to interact with the various elements. The “mutliple users, single location” principle was well thought through and the presentation was great too. No Dick Hardt, but still better than the other showcases.

The final showcase was about AVI Drome, a product from ParkPost; the product in itself did not catch my interest, simply because it is very location specific and not geared towards home / office users but rather companies in the (audio / visual) media creation sector.

Boris claimed early that the number one angst in the Netherlands is giving a presentation and looking at how badly half of the showcases was delivered, one must really wonder how it is that a student community can find a better selection of showcases for their events than a national cross media network.

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